Inconclusive Conclusions: Living with Montaigne’s Mentality


Appropriate a “worldview” to have an impostor’s point of view.

Or, develop a point of view that allows for the broadest range of possibilities.

I think I’m onto something with the second option.

Creative Nonfiction and Inconclusiveness

In MFA programs, some writers of creative nonfiction attempt to tell personal stories about traumas and crises.

Even the best memoirs can fail to answer fundamental questions about those personal stories.

But I wholeheartedly support those attempts.

“We read to know we’re not alone,” said playwright William Nicholson (who placed those words in C.S. Lewis’s mouth in Shadowlands, a fictitious account of the Narnia creator’s life).

Someone out there needs to hear he or she is not the only one who has been through a particular situation, or even just a particular feeling.

Written works, if not abandoned, have conclusions — but creative nonfiction is not always conclusive. That might seem self-contradictory for a genre of writing identified by its focus on the factual.

But it’s not self-contradictory.

A certain species of written work sets out to pursue the answer to questions, often unanswerable questions, like the question one of my friends pursued in her creative nonfiction thesis for her MFA: why did her grandfather jump to his death? Why did he commit suicide?

An ultimate, conclusive answer is not possible. But the meditation and speculation on the man’s heartbreaking act might just help bring about some emotional closure.

More importantly, the writer needs to wrestle with the emotion and experience that’s haunting her. For the writer, the wrestling and expressing have to happen. She pursues the question by telling her story.

And sometimes, people have to tell their stories again and again and again because they can’t quite make sense of what has happened.

Some of them are not writers, who at least have a creative outlet for their turmoil. That means non-writers tell their stories again and again and again to anyone who will listen. Their social circles tend to shrink. Their need for answers tends to expand.

Montaigne & Friends

A lack of conclusiveness in some nonfiction is hardly a postmodernist head trip or a morally relativistic innovation. The French writer Montaigne, who lived 1533-1592, was the granddaddy of the contemporary essay, and in his native tongue, essai essentially means to try.

Essays, in other words, were born as tries, as written attempts to grasp an issue, topic, emotion, or experience.

As I’ve been reading through Sarah Bakewell’s outstanding biography of Montaigne, and as I’ve been reading Montaigne’s essays in English translation, I’ve noticed an essayist’s mind roams and meanders and circumambulates.

An essay, in the literary tradition of Montaigne, is more like a tour through the layers and associations of the essayist’s mind than a definitive exposition of a given subject. (Alan Lightman deserves credit for this line of thinking; see his intro to Best American Essays 2000.)

The person’s interaction with the subject matter — that’s the point of the essay. Like I told a creative writing class recently, the relationship between the writer and “the subject” is the real subject of the essay.

And sometimes, people just don’t know what to think.

Essays are great places for saying, directly and indirectly, “Well, it seems like… but then, on the other hand…”

The essayist sets out to make a try, an attempt, at understanding something, and the reader ought to be as interested in the person writing about the subject matter as the subject matter itself. (Lightman again.)

Inconsistencies are welcome. Backtracking is cool. Indecisiveness is not par for the course; it is the course. Back-pedaling is to be expected.

That might seem like a horrible mode for the life of one’s mind, but for Montaigne, in a time of political ferment and religious wars among Jesus’s self-identified favorite children, withholding judgment (as Bakewell notes) and weighing all options and even leaving things unresolved seemed less like being squishy and more like being sane.

Kind of like in our time.

Neil Peart put it this way in a song that might have fit some of Montaigne’s moods: “Everyone knows everything / And no one’s ever wrong / Until later.”

Look—making oneself the sole authority is much, much different from insisting that others take responsibility for the violent results of their opinions and their allegiances. Accusations of individualistic rationalism and solipsism originate from the person covering-up a multitude of sins.

Arranging the Facts for Someone Else’s Conclusiveness

Sometimes the best thing a person can do, as Soren Kierkegaard once said (not in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, but if memory serves, in either Judge for Yourself or For Self-Examination), is to arrange the facts and leave the room so another person may arrive at his own conclusion. The arrangement might be motivated by an agenda. But to merely arrange the facts and leave—that might look inconclusive, and it might be inconclusive.

That probably doesn’t matter. In such a mode, the essayist’s righteousness is probably not the issue. The essayist seems to be operating in a self-deprecating mode: Sure, I’m a clown, but I’m dancing around this issue because it seems kind of important.

Of course, the inconclusive essayist—or dilettante blogger (guilty!)—risks as much by being inconclusive as he does by being confessional.

The better part of anyone’s social life depends upon agreement, unity, and mutuality. That seems both normal and tribal. But if the essayist wants to state an honest appreciation for a not-so-socially-acceptable perspective, the social circle might be less than accommodating to a departure from received doctrine.

So what? The essayist will just have to decide what’s more important—pursuing that uncertainty, that question, in a public fashion, or maintaining social respectability within the given framework.

I suspect no one would have appreciated such trade-offs quite like Montaigne.

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One response to “Inconclusive Conclusions: Living with Montaigne’s Mentality

  1. Reblogged this on Liturgical Credo and commented:

    Creative nonfiction as a philosophy of life?

    Like